Life After Cancer

Life After Breast Cancer: Why a cancer diagnosis isn’t always ‘a wake-up call’

Posted by Dr Jane Clark on 02 July 2021

laptop and stethoscope representing medical diagnosis

While some people speak of a cancer diagnosis as being a ‘wake-up call’ inspiring them to ‘live a full life’ or to do the things they were putting off, it’s crucial to recognise this isn’t a universal experience. The idea that a diagnosis immediately liberates, offering clarity and purpose, doesn’t align with the immediate challenges it presents. The ‘silver linings’ myth is sometimes just that. A myth. Expecting a complete life turnaround during diagnosis and treatment is both unrealistic and insensitive. But, it’s not all bad. Although not every cloud has a silver lining and suggesting one should find benefits amid suffering oversimplifies the emotional landscape, convalescence can provide an opportune time for personal reflection. This article – the 16th of Dr Jane Clark’s series on navigating life after cancer – delves into the intensely personal nature of this introspection, emphasising the importance of embracing changes gradually. Read on for Dr Clark’s insight and advice.

It’s not always bad

This article is adapted by Dr Jane Clark from an article originally written by Jane and Dr Peter Harvey. See our introduction for a background on this series of articles.

Some people report that the overall experience of cancer is not all bad or negative and that sometimes the diagnosis acts as a sort of ‘wake up call’ to review their life and its direction.

That is certainly not true for everyone and it’s extremely important that you and those around you do not expect that this will automatically happen. Rather like the patient who was told minutes after her initial diagnosis, “Now my dear, you can go off and do all those things you’ve always wanted to do”.

A diagnosis is not a liberator, at least not initially when it constrains and narrows down options and possibilities. And to expect that people either can or should turn their lives around whilst they are struggling with the impact of the diagnosis and the demands of treatment is really beyond belief.

A DIAGNOSIS IS NOT A LIBERATOR

Some people seem to look for positive outcomes as means of coping with disappointment – the ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ argument. This can be true and there is no doubt that some people can find some significant benefits as a result of a cancer diagnosis. But what happens for one person will not necessarily be true for another. And to be told that you should be finding benefit is an insensitive and unhelpful thing to hear. Benefit and growth do not justify pain and suffering, even though they may happen as a result of misfortune.

This is part of the process where you are more in control – you can choose to change as much or as little as you want at a time and in way that suits you. You need to remember that any changes to your life, whether planned or not, take time and energy and both those commodities may be in short supply especially during treatment.

One of the important opportunities that convalescence gives you is the chance to do some quiet reflection on what is important to you. One of the most common consequences of a major life event (especially a life-threatening event such as a diagnosis of cancer) is that people get a strong sense of their time being limited (‘life is too short’). This in turn can lead to a sense of pressure to do things differently, to tie up loose ends, to settle old scores or to bury the hatchet, the list is endless.

PERSONAL MATTERS

These are intensely personal matters and only you can sort out what needs doing (if anything) and when. This is certainly one area which you should take slowly and gently, making sure that you have enough energy and commitment to carry things through.

There is a scientific literature developing in this area which goes under a number of names – post-traumatic growth and benefit finding being the two commonest. The fact that they have become higher profile is a sign that there is an important shift in how we look at people in general and trauma in particular.

In the past (particularly in psychotherapy and psychiatry) we have looked at things going wrong and an assumed lack of psychological resource. The ideas of human resilience in the face of threat and a positive psychology movement (looking at peoples’ strengths) are a welcome change of direction.

Dr Jane Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

FURTHER INFORMATION

The next article in this series of articles provides advice on trying to find optimism after cancer and you can read it here 17: Life After Breast Cancer: Should I have therapy after cancer treatment?

If you’re looking for more support, Future Dreams hold a range of support groups, classes, workshops and events to help you and your carers during your breast cancer diagnosis. These are held both online and in person at the London-based Future Dreams House. To see what’s on offer and to book your place, see here.

To return to the homepage of our Information Hub, click here where you can access more helpful information, practical advice, personal stories and more.

This page was reviewed in April 2024 by the Future Dreams team.

The information and content provided in all guest articles is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. It is important that all personalised care decisions should be made by your medical team. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article and/or in relation to your personal situation. Please note that unless otherwise stated, Future Dreams has no affiliation to the guest author of this article and he/she/they have not been paid to write this article. There may be alternative options/products/information available which we encourage you to research when making decisions about treatment and support. The content of this article was created by Dr Jane Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and we accept no responsibility for the accuracy or otherwise of the contents of this article.

©️ 2023 Jane Clark and Peter Harvey. With quotes from the creators of the Ticking off Breast Cancer website (now Future Dreams Information Hub). All rights reserved.

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